The Sound of Silence

It’s easy to become lyrical about silence, isn’t it? All the great religions of the world seem to hold silence in veneration. In Christianity we have the immense paradox of  the creative word God speaks into the silence of non-being which is the Logos, the Word of God Incarnate. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, silence is the natural counterpart to the liturgy we celebrate in choir. We are immersed in silence, bathed in it all day long; but I don’t think you will find a single monk or nun who wouldn’t admit that, far from being the enviably peaceful state many imagine, it can be a searing experience. It confronts us with our inner poverty, challenges us to conversion of heart, casts a searching light on all that we would prefer to keep hidden.

The U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the C.I.A. shows us another kind of silence, the collusive silence of fear and shame which has nothing redemptive in it. It is the silence of Adam and Eve after they had eaten the fatal fruit. This morning I think we all feel our humanity has been diminished — not because we are personally responsible, but because whatever one human being does to another affects us all. This shameful silence, too, has to be taken into our prayer, has somehow to be transformed, so that it is no longer destructive.

During these days of Advent we try to be a little more silent than usual because we are preparing to receive the Word of God as Saviour and Redeemer. We need to listen. Sometimes all we’ll hear is the sound of silence, like the beating of a bird’s wing against the air or the pumping of blood around our heart. We need the Holy Spirit to come and overshadow us with his mighty power,  just as he overshadowed Mary. If we ask, he will; but we must be prepared for the unexpected. God’s ideas are always so much bigger than our own.

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Silence Days

From today, up to, and including, the First Sunday of Advent, we maintain complete silence in the monastery except for the liturgy and ‘necessary conversation’ — e.g. when the postman comes to the door. It is our way of bringing a sharp focus to bear on what Advent is about. It makes us realise how much noise we carry about within us, how many discordant thoughts and opinions. So, for three days we step back from that completely. I know from past experience it won’t be easy. If one drives one kind of noise out, another sneaks in to take its place. Punctuality for meals seems to undergo a mysterious sea-change. She who was always a minute late will now be five minutes early. Little quirks of behaviour that normally pass unremarked will become a source of profound irritation. On the plus side, one may be held entranced by the splash of light falling on a cupboard or feel, as if for the first time, the soft beauty of a wooden table or chair.

This change of pace and emphasis occurs when half the Western world seems to indulge in the mad materialism of Black Friday. I think that may be significant. We tend to confuse sufficiency and excess. Perhaps if we could all step back a little, even for half an hour, and think about what really makes for happiness, we might reassess our priorities. Silence is an eloquent teacher, if we are prepared to listen.

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Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.

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The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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On the Third Day of Christmas

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People often ask what Christmas is like in the monastery and are sometimes disappointed to learn that it is much like any other day, only with even more liturgy, and it lasts longer: twelve days rather than the one or two allowed in the secular calendar. It is a feast, but like all monastic feasts, eating and drinking are secondary to the liturgy.* It is also a time when many people turn to us for prayer or help, and our email prayerline and our telephone are kept busy with requests of various kinds. Despite that, I would still say that the most distinctive feature of the monastic Christmas is its silence. It is a silence that I think St John the Evangelist, whose feast we keep today, would have understood and shared. Before the Word of God we are all rendered dumb. But our dumbness is not the muteness of one who is embarrassed or ashamed. It is the quietness of wondering love and adoration; and even in a monastery, we have to work hard at focusing mind and heart so that no exterior noise or activity can disturb our inner stillness.

If your Christmas has, until now, been filled with activity and noise, try to find a moment or two today when you can simply lap up the love of God and know, as if for the first time, that he is your Saviour and Redeemer. Happy feast!

*BBC Radio 4’s Christmas Eve edition of ‘Woman’s Hour’ included a feature on our kitchen and monastic attitudes to food and drink:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03m79cl (starts about 11.48 in).

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Benedict, Beowulf and the Voice in the Wilderness

The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see http://ind.pn/18jQ2AE). Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).

When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.

This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.

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A Joyful Integrity

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. To one who believes, silence is never merely an absence of sound, never, in any sense, an absence of meaning. Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of His presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when He comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion.

St Francis Xavier, whose feast it is today, was, by all accounts, a man of singularly joyful integrity who won people to Christ by what he was, as much as by what he said. Let us make our own the collect for the day:

Lord God, you won so many peoples to yourself
by the preaching of St Francis Xavier.
Give us the same zeal he had for the faith
and let your Church rejoice
to see the virtue and number of her children increase
throughout the world.

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St Andrew’s Day 2013

Today is the end of the liturgical year, the end of the month we set aside for praying in a special way for the dead. It is a bluff, gruff kind of day, cold and a little bleak. It is also the feast of St Andrew, and in Scotland a sad day as people come to terms with the helicopter accident which has injured many in Glasgow. We can see it as a hinge between two times, one that looks back and one that looks forward, a kind of hiatus between death and life. It has an almost ‘Holy Saturday’ quality about it; and just as we spend Holy Week in silence and recollection so now, as Ordinary Time passes into Advent, we shall have three days of profound silence here at the monastery. It won’t be an empty silence, nor will it be particularly penitential (I hope), though it will have its longeurs. It will be a time when we try to listen more intently to the voice of the Lord calling us to follow. Each of us must, in our own way, step out into the deep, sure of only one thing (and sometimes perhaps, not even of that): the Lord who calls desires to give us life in all its fullness. We are fee to accept or reject his invitation. What we cannot do is put off our answer to an uncertain future. We must decide now.

Note:
While the community is in retreat, blog posts, tweets and Facebook statuses will all be automated (i.e. scheduled in advance) and we won’t be responding to any emails or comments. We shall hold all of you in prayer. Please pray for us, too.

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Preparing for Advent

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Advent, that all-too-short period of preparation for Christmas, when most of us try to juggle spiritual preparations with more mundane matters concerning family, food and ‘the festive break’. Some are already planning reading programmes and multitudinous good works, none of which is to be mocked or disparaged. But could I suggest that Advent itself needs to be prepared for, and that the best way of preparing for Advent is, contrary to what you might think, not-doing?

It is good during these last few days before Advent begins to be silent rather than trying to decide what we are going to read or do by way of Advent preparations. If you can, try to find some time during the day when you are not doing anything in particular, not reading, not praying as such, just being quiet and attentive; and let the silence within you grow and grow until you can hear it, embrace it, make it part of your life. It is in that silencing of mind and heart that we allow God an opportunity to make his Advent within us. It is a paradox, but if we would welcome the Word into our lives, we must first learn what it means to be wordless.

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